Hadestown: Union Chapel

Hadestown: Union Chapel

Anais Mitchell’s folk opera has been reviewed widely enough that those who are interested in such things should be pretty au fait with her translation of the myth of Orpheus to a post-apocalyptic, depression era USA which has garnered praise far and wide. Prior to the performances here and in Glasgow, the Guardian ran an interview with her which will tie up the loose ends for anyone wanting to know more: http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2011/jan/13/anais-mitchell-bon-iver-interview

On record, Hadestown bristles with a kind of folk/jazz energy, hard metallic guitar scratches and persistent, virtuoso bass that makes each song an individual delight. But best of all is the way these disparate parts strong together to create a cohesive whole that somehow feels both ramshackle and fully realised. Several years in construction, Mitchell appears to have chosen the perfect point to stop. And that point was recreated, song for song and arrangement for arrangement at the Union Chapel. The only addition was Jackie Leven, rambling through a few narratives between groups of songs to explain the story: helpful perhaps, but what I wouldn’t have given to see Leven add his unique vocals to the mix.

As is usual after a gig, I scratched around Google looking for reviews. I was surprised to find very few, save for some rather toxic comments on a couple of websites. What each of these did was to compare it to the album. And yes, Jim moray is no Justin Vernon. No. He’s a Jim Moray, the clues in the name. And Martin Carthy’s deep ingrained Englishness was polar opposite to Greg Brown’s Iowa rumble, but hell! Why shouldn’t the king of the underworld be from Hertfordshire?

Each performer, Anais Mitchell aside, had essentially come together for only one or two performances, as talent has been drawn from the local folk scene. So, understandably, some needed closer reference to the words than others, and there were occasional slips and the odd bum note.

Individual performances, of course, do count for something and of those, Thea Gilmore stood out as a raunchy Persephone (she has such physical presence) and the three chorus singers, led by support act Wallis Bird, swaggered, and even gave themselves an excited round of applause at the end of “When The Chips are Down”. Carthy was occasionally a bit swamped, perhaps as much by the acoustics which swallowed his idiosyncratic diction, but on his solo “His Kiss, the Riot”, he owned the space, a hushed silence descending even on the young first daters directly in front of me. Moray too grew into his role as Orpheus, his voice filling the cavernous Chapel; his awkward gestures lending to the status of this as a gig and not a piece of musical theatre. If anything, the air was of a community theatre having an end of year party.

Anais Mitchell added much of this sense of community herself. Leaning forward to offer encouragement and gently ushering people in on cue for each song or after instrumental breaks. For her part, she was her usual, twitchy, jerky self, investing what is potentially the blandest character – romantic leads were ever thus – with a mix of hardnosed pragmatism (“It’s my gut I can’t ignore”) and lilting lyricism.

Finally, the congregation (and I think that is the word in this special venue), were dragged in for a communal sing-along on a reprise of “Way Down, Hadestown”, performed off mic and sitting along the edge of the stage. Not a bad way to pick out the true strength of individual voices and Gilmore again stood out as the soulful folk rocker she is, and the record buying public seem indisposed to recognise.

A fun evening, then. Perhaps it’s the Englishness in me that delighted in the whiff of amateurism, but to me this was a night well worth seeing, and one that, as it travels around, will never be wholly the same twice. And that, to me is a good thing.